As playwrights have repeatedly discovered, sending their characters on overnight visits to town or country houses reaps dividends. Back in the 20s, Noel Coward had a hit with Hay Fever. In the 30s George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wowed Broadway with The Man Who Came to Dinner. And striking a more serious note in the 60s were Edward Albee‘s A Delicate Balance and Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. In 2004, David Eldredge successfully adapted the Danish film Festen, a recriminatory drama that centered around a celebratory 60th birthday.
Four years after Festen, the Bush Theatre presented Alexi Kaye Campell’s Apologia, in which a formidable matriarch invites her two sons and their girlfriends to an informal birthday dinner in her country home. It’s now being revived in the West End as a vehicle for the American actress Stockard Channing, who was last seen on the London stage in 1992 in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.
She plays Kristin, a published art historian and fervent 1960s political activist around whom the play revolves. As originally written, Kristin was British. She’s now morphed into an American (“by birth, not by choice”), thereby necessitating some rewrites that work well enough but without going too deeply into her political origins. What hasn’t changed, though, is the superior moral high ground she adopts when her views are challenged or those held by others differ from her own.
First to arrive is her son Peter, an international banker (a taker rather than a giver, as Kristin puts it) and his rather vanilla, deeply Christian fiancée Trudi. Next up is Claire, a successful soap actress who drives a Porsche and wears a Japanese number that costs £2000. She has come from London without Peter’s unemployable brother Simon, a would-be writer who arrives after everyone has gone to bed.
As Kristin monstrously hurls insults at the two young women, scoring cheap points as she dismisses their beliefs and lifestyles, she raises rudeness and insensitivity to an art form. Not that she shows much compassion for her sons either. The family dynamic reaches a climax when Peter and Simon confront her at different times for not even mentioning them in a memoir she has just published.
There are of course deep-rooted reasons for Kristin’s behaviour, and they go way back to her divorce. She was in Florence with her very young sons at the time, and did nothing to regain custody of them when they were taken from her by her ex-husband. Living with the burden of this guilt clearly resulted in self-hatred, which in turn hardened her into the lonely monster she’s become.
Also present at this dinner from hell is Hugh, an outspoken, camp old queen who holds the same political beliefs as his host and probably knows her better than anyone else. There’s a scene the play desperately needs in which he sets out to explain Kristin’s behaviour to Peter but which, unfortunately, is interrupted and goes for nothing.
The raison d'être of Jamie Lloyd’s laid-back production is clearly Channing, and she’s terrific. Watching her navigate her way around Campbell’s razor-edged text, or just listening – as in a scene in which her son Simon describes an experience he had at age 12 when he was picked up by a man in Genoa – is to appreciate an actress working at the very top of her form.
As Trudi, Laura Carmichael slowly peels off layers of her character not initially in evidence, while Freema Agyeman also brings out unexpected facets in Claire. Desmond Barritt does the best he can with the marginalsed stereotype Hugh, and Joseph Millson, playing both Peter and Simon (obviously never seen together), gives each brother a convincing personality of his own. Adding to a flawed but entertaining evening is the excellent set by Soutra Gilmour.